Friday, January 22, 2016

The Next Generation 4x19 "The Nth Degree"

rating: ****

the story: Barclay develops exceptional intelligence.

similar to: "Where No Man Has Gone Before" (original series)

my thoughts: This one's really quite remarkable, at once snapping the season's dry spell while drawing on some of its more common instincts and bringing back a familiar guest-star.

Last seen in his debut appearance, "Hollow Pursuits," Barclay has a wonderful opportunity to counterpoint his own known characteristics as he inexplicably becomes the smartest man in the room.  This could easily have degenerated into nonsense, and at face value it's strange that a guest character experiences this at all, but this was a whole season of exploring the limits of the show's characters, wisely branching out in the process to begin shaping the supporting cast (it's no wonder that the next season introduces Ro, easily in her first appearance the best-developed character in the series). 

It's the series once again affirming that it has a firm grasp of its own potential, and it's a nod to the second pilot of the original series at the very same time.

Really?  Yeah, really.  "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is the story of Kirk's old buddy Gary Mitchell develops god-like abilities.  That in itself set off a whole subset of Star Trek tropes, which Next Generation had already answered in the character of Q.  For one episode, "Hide and Q," the series even played with the idea of Q bestowing his abilities on one of the main cast members (arguably the weakest Q episode, alas), the closest the theme had come to merging back with the franchise's origins.

Barclay is about as far away from Gary Mitchell as you can get.  "Hollow Pursuits" featured him as one of the most marginalized Starfleet officers ever, crippled by his own neuroses.  Yet he was a capable officer, perhaps even a brilliant one.  So it's interesting that in his next appearance, he accidently becomes the best one ever, surpassing even Data's abilities.

It's a fascinating concept executed perfectly because of Barclay's established personality.  It would have felt stiff and awkward shoehorned into a main cast member's character.  And it's the rare instant where a perfect solution was realized.  It's a situation that works to everyone's advantage, a crisis that pushes everyone to their limits, with something as simple as trying to figure out what the heck's going on with Barclay.

(In Voyager, Barclay gets to have an achievement all his own when he's the one who locates the wayward crew, so it's nice that Star Trek finally let him get a bona fide win.)

That the whole thing is actually a plot by some aliens to explore the galaxy in ways very different from Starfleet's, harkens back to moments like "Clues," which features another left-turn ending, or "Future Imperfect," where we learn late in the episode what Riker was really experiencing.  It's a culmination of a particular creative itch from the writing staff, and it works perfectly.

The fact that Barclay doesn't progress as a character, at least for the duration of this series?  Don't let it bother you.

criteria analysis: franchise - series - character - essential (all criteria met)

notable guest-stars:
Dwight Schultz (Barclay)

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